Why is a question the most powerful force in your business?

Guest Post by David Stephens

That odd, yet interesting, symbol we call a question mark has real power, but how do you unleash it to improve your profits, morale, passion, etc…? Good questions take time, thought and practice to master. Just like any skill you learn by trying, failing, learning and quickly repeating. I’ll explore four aspects of questions in this article, types of good questions, characteristics of good questions and finally how to craft a good question. So, what do you have to lose by trying to ask better questions? You might waste your time, look stupid, or you might just unleash the power of a question.

I believe the best way to understand four types of questions is to look at some examples. Given human biases, finding trustworthy sources of information is a challenge. Our information sources can not only confirm our biases but are often used to try persuading others. I’ve found Wikipedia is a good source of less biased information, yet many people find its crowdsourcing methods problematic.

To encourage a dialogue on the subject, let’s look at a series of questions I might ask:

  • First, to gain agreement I might ask, “How can we stop people from being biased?” My answer: We can’t, it’s natural and all animals do it. Humans do it when picking friends and gazelles do it when staying away from lions.
  • Next to elicit a thoughtful answer I might ask, “How might crowd sourced information reduce bias?” My answer: People with different biases are checking and modifying others’ information.
  • Then to emphasize a point I might ask, “When can we expect truly unbiased information?” My answer: Never.
  • Finally, to elicit an admission of I don’t know I might ask, “Is Wikipedia’s information more biased than your go-to source?” Regarding this last question, unless you know the answer, it’s ok to admit you don’t know. That adds the additional benefit of building trust with the other person. Now you both know what to research and discuss further if necessary.

The best questions have many characteristics. They are short, easy to understand, thought provoking, they minimize assumptions and sometimes are inconvenient to answer. Like creating a masterpiece, achieving such questions requires thought, drafts and practice. I often draft questions on my iPhone. I usually put down my immediate ideas of what I want to ask and then I refine it to fit one of the four types above; gain agreement, emphasize a point, elicit a thoughtful answer or get someone to admit they don’t know. Sometimes I ask someone else to proofread the question to ensure it makes sense and identify any assumptions I’m making.

Crafting a good question begins with one simple thing, observation. Next, ask why or what’s going on. This is where drafting the question begins. Once you have a single well thought out question, just ask it. Answers to hard or complex questions rarely stop there. You must be prepared to go through the steps over and over until you both find common agreement. (Agreeing to disagree is not acceptable, if you are really trying to identify the actual problem.)

Now you’ve likely found the root issue or problem. Once the problem is identified the solutions are typically obvious.

Here’s an example. I led a team to brainstorm solutions for a variety of problems with our new Air Force accounting system. One of the problems initially read as:

The accounts receivable report previously generated in seconds, now with the new
system it takes about 30 minutes.

When the 12 participants walked into the room, virtually everyone said the same thing, the solution was to speed up the system, which takes time and money to implement. (This is especially true in government.) After 2 hours of asking ever evolving basic questions, challenging assumptions, and sparking dialogue, we revised the problem to read as follows:

How do we run, download and format an Excel file, for multiple locations, into a
procure to pay accounts receivable report in less than 10 minutes, anytime of day?

The moment I wrote that down on the board and read it aloud, one of the developers on the team said, “Wait, are you hitting the Save or Run button?” He elaborated stating, “When people run this report and the File Download Security box pops up on your screen, you want to hit the Save button not the Run button. Saving the file takes seconds to execute, while running the file could take 30 minutes.” Ah ha! The simple and easy solution was to educate the end users, not speed up the system. Of course, speeding up the system is still an option, but I’d recommend testing the simple, no cost solution first and if that doesn’t fix it evaluating speeding it up or coming back together for another round of Q&A.

If you look differently at questions and carefully select the right type with the proper characteristics and spend time drafting it, you’ll become skilled in no time.

Albert Einstein said, “If I had 1 hour to save the planet, I’d spend 55 minutes understanding the problem and 5 minutes on the solution.”

What does someone do to understand a problem? Hopefully by now you understand how to ask better questions. So now ask yourself what are at least two things I can take away from this article and implement in my next office meeting?

David Stephens


David Stephens is the Founder of Solved. LLC. Before that, he served as an Air Force Comptroller for 23 years in assignments ranging from the Pentagon to command. For more information on Solved David invites you to email him @ davidsolvedit@gmail.com



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